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Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Toils Obscure

I learned a couple of days ago that a man I owe a lot too died in March. He was 85 so for someone of that generation had a reasonable if not exceptional innings. His name is Brian Richie, he was my English teacher in what would now be called years 9-13.

I want to say something about him, call it a tribute if you like, but I have a small difficulty. I only ever met him once as an adult and my perspective is consequently mostly that of the schoolboy. About the man himself I know little. But I know what he was like in the classroom and I know what influence he had on me.

Brian was of that generation of secondary school teachers that had no degree, in fact he was taking an OU degree in English while he was teaching us. In class he sometimes told us things about his past, something that few of the other teachers did, and that in itself made him stand out. He'd done his National Service in Cyprus and left us in no doubt about the unheroic task of standing on guard duty on a pitch black night desperately hoping a terrorist woudn't creep up behind you and cut your throat.

Sometime after National Service he became an Anglican priest, and a secondary school teacher. Later, I gather, he went back to the Church. When he died he was the Rev Brian Ritchie and had been Rector of Hatton with Haseley between 1988 and  1997. About the Church side of his life I know nothing at all.

What first struck you about Brian when you met him in the classroom was his appearance. He must have been 1 meter 95 tall, elegantly clothed, usually in a grey suit and beard. He had remarkably long legs and did a very passable impression of John Cleese doing the funny walk.. Even though he was a housemaster as well as an English teacher he always affected an air of anti-authoritarian irreverence. He could be severe when he had to be (and could shout very loudly) but I always felt that this was just an act that an essentially kindly man  put on to keep control of some often quite out of control pupils.

So what was special about his teaching? First a step back. My first two years of English lessons at secondary school were...pedestrian. There was nothing wrong with the teacher but her teaching didn't inspire a love of literature in me. It probably wasn't her fault. She had the tough job of getting 11 and 12 year olds to read A High Wind in Jamaica (A brilliant book, but better read when you are older), A Kid for Two Farthings the Silver Sword and The Pearl. I never managed to read any of them and couldn't really see why I should. Nobody ever bothered to explain why we were doing whatever we were doing.

Brian's approach to teaching English was completely different. He decided, possibly inspired by his OU course, that what we needed and what it would be fun to do (no national curriculum in those days) was to cover as much of the development of English literature as you could squeeze into a year. But first he  gave us some tools to help us learn to learn. He was a great one for bringing a TV and VCR into the classroom and he showed us a few episodes of Tony Buzan's Use Your Head, mind mapping, speed reading, mnemonics etc. I don't know what the reputation of that sort of thing is now but to me, at the time, it was revelatory to realise that you could consciously improve how you learned. 

That year we watched  Jonathan Miller's King Lear (1975 BBC Play of the Month), listened to excerpts from Hair "What a piece of work is a man...", watched Hardy's The Withered Hand and a Hammer Horror Movie to study the conventions of the Gothic Novel, watched Monty Python as an introduction to the Theatre of the Absurd. Brian distributed his own paperback books among us. I was given Tom Jones, and the Power and the Glory. We had a few weeks to read as much as we could (I think I managed about a third of Tom Jones) and then we had to write a report on what we had read. Somehow we also managed to fit in reading some D H Lawrence short stories  the Lawrence novel that we were supposed to be studying- Son's and Lovers and Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men

For the first time I realised that people didn't just spin novels out of their heads. They were part of a literary tradition and that tradition had conventions which they either adhered to or consciously broke away from. It struck me that writers write what they do and in the way that they do for  reasons and that it was fun to try and figure out their reasons, what kind of effect they were aiming for, how they achieved their effect (or didn't) and so forth. It also started me off thinking about the merits of different styles of literature, standards of taste and how literary judgements are made.

Brian taught me for O level (Macbeth, A Kestrel for a Knave, Northanger Abbey, War & 1930s poets) and A level (The Rainbow, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead and the Unseen Crit paper). As we got older he revealed a bit more about himself. He extolled the virtues of Soft Machine, Cream, Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream whilst disparaging the commercialism of Bowie. I still have some purple cyclostyled sheets he handed out. They are copies of Clive James's Observer column which he used to teach Lit Crit. In everything he did he opened up new worlds, revealed new vistas,showed us  things that were 'til then unseen and unimagined.

I let him down in O level English Lit by only achieving a B. Though I knew Macbeth and the poetry off by heart I had (unaccountably) only read half of Northanger Abbey which made answering questions about it a tad tricky. Learning my lesson I made sure that I knew all the A level texts thoroughly and did him proud.

After leaving school I only met Brian once. It was at some sort school reunion cultural event. He was gently charming and surprised me by bringing up something I had written for him years earlier. I was astounded that he would remember. We said we would keep in touch, but as is often the case, good intentions were not sufficient and I made no effort. 

And yet his influence is indelible. The Man's the gowd for a' that!

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